Listen to the Marriage

Listen to the Marriage

by John Jay Osborn


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A riveting drama of marital therapy

Gretchen and Steve have been married for a long time. Living in San Francisco, recently separated, with two children and demanding jobs, they’ve started going to a marriage counselor. Unfolding over the course of ten months and taking place entirely in the marriage counselor’s office, John Jay Osborn’s Listen to the Marriage is the story of a fractured couple in a moment of crisis, and of the person who tries to get them to see each other again. A searing look at the obstacles we put in our own way, as well as the forces that drive us apart (and those that bring us together), Listen to the Marriage is a poignant exploration of marriage—heartbreaking and tender.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374192020
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 138,257
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Jay Osborn graduated from Harvard Law School in 1970. He wrote The Paper Chase while he was a full-time law student. Osborn has clerked for the United States Court of Appeals, practiced law in New York City, taught at the University of Miami School of Law, and practiced in the estate-planning field, as well as giving advice and representation to artists and writers. He is the author of several novels and has written episodes for a variety of television shows. Since 1991 he has been a lecturer at the law school of the University of San Francisco.

Read an Excerpt


"Is there anything practical that needs to be addressed right now?" Sandy asked.

Like a student, Gretchen raised her hand.

It had been a long time since one of the couples who came to Sandy had raised a hand before speaking.

"Okay, Gretchen," Sandy said. "What's going on?"

"I'm worried about money," Gretchen said. "Since I moved out, I've had to rent an apartment, furnish it, pay for new childcare."

"How much money do you have?" Sandy asked.

"I don't know," Gretchen said. "In my checking account right now, I have three thousand dollars. The rest of our money? Steve handles it."

Sandy turned to Steve, Gretchen's husband. He was slumped in the chair across from Gretchen.

"So, Steve, what is the money situation?" Sandy asked.

"I just became a full partner at Simpson Weaver," Steve said. "I had a chance to buy into the partnership fund. It took all of our uncommitted resources."

"Are you saying that you and Gretchen have no money?" Sandy asked.

"Of course we have money," Steve said. "I think there is about twenty thousand dollars in our Vanguard money market fund. It's all going to work out. Now that I'm a partner, I can borrow as much money as I need."

You had to buy into the partnership fund, but then you can borrow as much as you want? Sandy thought.

"As I understand it, you guys just sold a house in Ross," Sandy said. "Where's the money from that?"

"We closed escrow this morning," Steve said. "I have a check for two hundred thousand dollars."

Sandy's mother had been a legendary real estate maven. In fact, this office was in one of her mother's buildings. Sandy knew something about real estate.

"You sold a house in Ross, and the total cash you got was only two hundred thousand dollars?" Sandy said.

"I had to mortgage the house," Steve said. "I took out every penny I could."

"To buy into the partnership fund?" Sandy said evenly.

"It sounds crazy," Steve said. "But that's the way it works."

He leaned forward in his chair.

"You think this is nuts, don't you? You think I've been scamming Gretchen or something," Steve said.

"I've known you for about half an hour," Sandy said. "I have no idea what you're doing to Gretchen. All I know is that Gretchen is worried about money."

"So we can split the money from the house," Steve said.

"Are you worried about money?" Sandy asked Steve.

"Not really," he said. "Soon I'll have my first partnership draw."

"And you can borrow as much as you want until then?" Sandy asked.

"Yes, sure," Steve said.

"I think you should give the two hundred thousand dollars from the house to Gretchen," Sandy said.

Sandy saw it hit him. He almost lashed out. Somehow he got control of himself.

"That's interesting," Steve said deliberately, cautiously. Sandy waited for more.

"The whole two hundred thousand dollars?" Steve said.

"Yes," Sandy said. "All of it. Gretchen has taken a huge step, moving out on her own with the kids. On top of everything else, do you want her worried about money?"

That's right, Steve, Sandy was saying. She left you, but I want you to give her the whole two hundred thousand dollars. Can you see why?

"But half of it belongs to Steve," Gretchen said. She looked so earnest, and so blond, blue-eyed, so all-American. It was like, What am I doing here? This isn't my movie.

"What do you mean, half of it belongs to Steve?" Sandy asked.

"If we got divorced, half would be his," Gretchen said.

"Do you want to get divorced?" Sandy asked.

"I don't know," Gretchen said slowly. "Probably, but we have two children."

"I'm a marriage therapist," Sandy said. "Frankly, I don't care what the law says. You can find a lawyer to explain that to you. What I see is that you're worried about money. I think two hundred thousand dollars would take your worry about money off the table, at least for the time being. You told me that you're primarily responsible for the kids plus you're working full-time. I think you're going to need all kinds of help. Do you want to be worried about money on top of everything else?"

Gretchen lit up. "You really think I should have the whole two hundred thousand?" she said.

"Yes," Sandy said.

She turned to look at Steve. His shirt was pressed, his shoes were shined, his pants had a neat crease. But his brown eyes had deep circles under them, and his hands shook. He was trying to hold himself together.

"What do you think, Steve?" Sandy asked.

"I think most guys would say: My wife is about to divorce me, and the marriage counselor wants me to give my wife all of the cash from the house? When legally one-half belongs to me? Why would I do that?" Steve said. "That's what most guys would say."

"That is what most guys would say," Sandy said. "What about you?" Amazingly, he smiled.

"When you said the whole two hundred thousand should go to Gretchen, I was like, Wow." Steve paused. "I was like: What is going on here? I felt ambushed. I thought, While we're trying to decide whether to get a divorce or not, shouldn't everything be frozen in place?"

The last thing Sandy believed was that everything should be frozen in place.

"Do you want a divorce?" Sandy asked.

Steve didn't answer. What was he feeling? Sandy wondered if he could talk about it. She asked: "How are you feeling, Steve?"

"How I'm feeling?" It was as if this were a question he had not allowed himself to consider.

"My wife has moved out with the kids. I just made partner at a private equity firm but I feel worse than I've ever felt in my life. I haven't slept for weeks."

He stopped talking, looked at Gretchen sitting across from him. It was as if he wanted to take stock. Who was she? He didn't know anymore.

She's a beautiful, smart ice princess and you really fucked this up, Sandy thought.

Would Sandy take them on? She wasn't sure. Where were the brooding, melancholy artists? She never saw them. Was Steve brooding? Brooding, introspective, willing to change? Was it possible that he could change? Did he write poetry late at night? Did he paint watercolors? Did he realize how beautiful it was here, in this city, at this time of year?

She looked over at Gretchen. And could you change? It might actually be harder for you, princess.

Steve was looking around the office, the desk in the corner, the Scandinavian armchairs, and behind them, the big green Victorian armchair. Was he thinking it was out of place in the office? The two windows showing the top of the pepper tree outside. Sandy realized that Steve hadn't noticed his surroundings, where he was, as he stumbled in, having trouble just getting to his chair. Now he was centering himself.

"Steve?" Sandy said.

"Sorry," he said. "So why would I give Gretchen the half of the money that belongs to me? Why should I do that?"

"Because she's worried about money," Sandy said.

"I don't want to get divorced," Steve said quietly, finally answering Sandy's question.

"But you are teetering on the edge of it," Sandy said. "What you've been doing hasn't worked. You should try something new. Something you would never do. Something that seems counterintuitive. Why not? What do you have to lose?" "Money," Steve said.

Wrong answer, Steve. Sandy just looked at him: Steve, it is all on the line right now. Do you get that?

"Try something counterintuitive?" Steve said after a moment.

"Why not?" Sandy said.

He was still clinging by his fingertips to what most guys thought. Let go, Steve, Sandy thought. He looked away, into the middle distance.

"I'm tired," Steve said.

"I know," Sandy said. Let go, you've been holding on too long, she thought.

He did. Sandy sensed him let go of the guys and the advice that never works and fall into the unknown.

"Okay," Steve said. "Let's try counterintuitive."

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope.

"I happen to have the check with me."

He opened the envelope, took out a check. He took the Montblanc pen from his shirt pocket and endorsed the check. He handed it to Gretchen. She took it. Two hundred thousand dollars.

"Thank you," she said.

Sandy thought these were probably the first kind words Steve had heard from Gretchen in a long time. Thank you. See, Steve, Sandy thought, you tried something counterintuitive and already it's working.

Yes, she would take them on.


Sandy always saw her couples for individual sessions at the beginning.

Two days later, when Gretchen came in alone, she looked exhausted, just dead tired. And she was late too, though just by a few minutes. She ran up the stairs to Sandy's second-floor office.

"I'm sorry I'm late," she said. She went to the chair she'd sat in before. "Thank God you have the little parking lot."

She put her brown leather bag on the floor next to her chair. She breathed deeply a few times.

"This is a wonderful building," she said. "I saw the bronze plaque on the wall near the stairs. You thank your mother for giving you the building."

My mother put up that plaque, Sandy remembered.

"Thank you," Sandy said. "What's up? You look exhausted."

It brought Gretchen up short. She snapped into the moment.

"I am," Gretchen said. "Last night, I stayed up until two in the morning grading papers, and then I had to get up with the kids and get them to school on Dolores and then I drive to Fillmore to see you, then later, I need to get back across town to teach class at USF, then back to Dolores to pick up the kids. I don't know, Sandy."

"What don't you know?" Sandy asked.

"If one little thing goes wrong, if school calls because one of the kids is sick, the whole house of cards tumbles," Gretchen said.

"Where does Steve fit into all of this?" Sandy asked.

"He picks the kids up at school two days a week, and every other weekend he has them," Gretchen said.

"So if one of the kids got sick, and you had to teach, why wouldn't you ask Steve to take over?" Sandy asked.

"I don't want to ask Steve for anything," Gretchen said evenly. "I don't even like the fact that he has the children two afternoons a week."

"We should talk about that," Sandy said. "But maybe not right now. Why don't you hire someone to help you out with the kids?"

"I don't want them to feel abandoned by me," Gretchen said. "They're already upset that Steve and I aren't together."

Sandy shook her head.

"You're a professor at a university that must have a thousand talented students who need part-time jobs. Your kids might like to spend an afternoon with one of them, rather than with their exhausted mother, who can barely keep her eyes open because she was up all night grading papers," Sandy said.

There was more, Sandy knew.

"But it wasn't just grading papers, was it?" Sandy said.

"I was also on the phone for an hour or so," Gretchen said quietly.

"This would be with some guy, right?"


"Tell me about it," Sandy said.

"I'm embarrassed," Gretchen said slowly.

"You'll get over it," Sandy said. She smiled at Gretchen. And you will, she thought.

Gretchen nodded.

"So right after I got tenure, I went to a conference about Dickens and his contemporaries. This guy gave a really good paper on publishing in London in the middle of the nineteenth century. I'd met him before. He had been very supportive of my work. We talked, and everything came out that was happening with Steve. We ended up spending the night together. He saw how much I had been missing out, how limited my life had become with Steve."

"This guy's name is?" Sandy asked.

"William Keener," Gretchen said. "Bill."

"Did you know Steve was having an affair when this happened?" Sandy asked.

"I hadn't confronted Steve, but I knew it was going on," Gretchen said. "He was vague about where he was. There were calls he got at odd times. I knew. It was amazing to watch him. How could he believe I was so stupid? But he just kept going and going. It is amazing to watch your partner just out-and-out lie to you."

"So now you're both having affairs," Sandy said.

"I would never have had an affair if Steve hadn't been having one," Gretchen snapped. Angry, tired. "I was desperate. I was miserable. Everything was crumbling."

"Gretchen, I'm not making any value judgments here," Sandy said. "But I want to get things straight. Did you talk to Steve about thinking he was having an affair?"

"Yes," Gretchen said. "Right after I got back from that Dickens conference. I told him I knew that he was having an affair. He admitted it. He told me that he'd stopped seeing her a few weeks before."

"Does Steve know about Bill?"

"He probably knows something is going on, I went to the conference, and I came back a different woman," Gretchen said. "But I haven't told him."

"Where is Bill?"

"He teaches at UCLA and he lives in Santa Monica. There's another problem. He's married. And he's also been divorced, which was one reason it was so good to talk to him. He knew exactly what I was going through."

"And he has children?" Sandy asked.

"One from each marriage," Gretchen said.

"So how does he get to talk to you for an hour late at night?" Sandy asked.

"He got up in the middle of the night and went into his study," Gretchen said.

"I have a suggestion," Sandy said.

"I know," Gretchen said. "I have to tell Steve."

"That too," Sandy said. "Although I'll bet he knows. My suggestion is this. You are the one in charge here. You may not realize it, but you are in control. Not Bill; not Steve. You are in control of everything right now. My suggestion is that you do exactly what is good for you. For example, put Bill on your schedule."

"How would that work?" Gretchen asked, sounding confused.

"Don't sit around waiting for Bill's wife to go to sleep so that Bill can slip down to his study and give you a call and keep you up all night," Sandy said. "You tell him when it's convenient for you to talk to him."

"He can't just say to his wife, Excuse me, I need to go call Gretchen."

"Maybe not, but that's his problem, not yours," Sandy said.

"I need to talk to him."

"Believe me, he'll figure it out," Sandy said.

"I don't want to stress him out," Gretchen said.

"Him? You've got two little kids you are taking care of on your own, you have papers to grade, you have courses to teach, you have committees you have to go to, and your marriage has fallen apart. Who is the one who's stressed out?" Sandy said.

"I want to talk to him," Gretchen said, tears coming. "I need him." She really was exhausted, Sandy thought. She was a wreck.

"You've got him," Sandy said. "You've done a great job pulling everything apart, but right now you need to pull yourself together."

"I'm in love with him," Gretchen said, the words pouring out. "I can talk to him. I finally have someone I can talk to. For the first time in years. I want him so much it makes me ache inside."

Gretchen looked at Sandy and held her hands out.

"But he's married and he's been divorced once. This is never going to work out. I wish his wife would die," Gretchen said.

She was sobbing now. Sandy handed her the box of tissues she kept on the side table by her chair.

"I am exhausted," Gretchen said.

"I know," Sandy said. "How could you not be?"


Sandy heard Steve's Mercedes, the AMG C63, chug into the parking lot, sounding just like her mother's C63, and it irritated her. Her mother had driven that car not for the comfort of her clients — for a Mercedes it was a little cramped. She wanted power, the big thunking V-8, with low-slung torque that could drive you back in the seat and smoke the rear wheels, feed you with raging intensity, fasten the seat belts, here we come. That was Mom. Is that what you were wanting to project, Steve?

He didn't come up right away. It was four or five minutes before he opened the door to the waiting room, triggering the light under Sandy's desk. Then there was a knock on her office door, and it opened but not all the way. Steve looked in.

"I'm not sure what the protocol is," Steve said. "Do I wait out here until you come and get me?"

"Yes, because someone could still be in here — a crisis," Sandy said. "But no one is here. Come in."

He looked about the same: downcast, depressed, a cracked translucent china plate, like the ones Sandy's mom had bought late in life, porcelain so thin you could see your hand through it.

"Can I get your opinion on something?" he said.

"Sure," Sandy said.

"So I was coming over here from Presidio Heights. I was going down Bush Street. The next thing I knew I was on the Embarcadero. I had overshot Fillmore. I had no memory of having gotten to the Embarcadero. I had to turn around to head back toward Fillmore. Then I was on Fillmore but with no memory of how I got there. Next thing I knew, I was in your parking lot."

"Are you taking drugs, Steve?" Sandy asked. "Drinking?"


Excerpted from "Listen to the Marriage"
by .
Copyright © 2018 John Jay Osborn.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. What are the problems in Steve and Gretchen’s marriage that bring them into therapy? What has been going on in their lives—work, family, and so forth—that caused them to separate? Do they agree on what their problems are? Who is more at fault? Who is more upset? What are their goals at the beginning of therapy?

2. The narrative shifts between what Sandy, the marriage therapist, is thinking about Gretchen and Steve and what she actually says to them. What do her thoughts reveal about her opinion of the couple and their marriage? About how she approaches therapy? Which thoughts does she share, and which does she hold back?

3. Gretchen’s interactions with Sandy are often confrontational. She challenges Sandy’s counseling methods and accuses her of siding with Steve. Why does Gretchen behave like this? How does Sandy respond? At the end of the book, Sandy “realized what Gretchen wanted. A burst of love swept through her. What marriage counselor can remain impartial?” What has happened? Is Sandy’s “burst of love” for Gretchen or the marriage?

4. As Steve and Gretchen are negotiating childcare so Gretchen can travel to New York with Bill, Sandy’s thoughts drift to how little she cares about her clients’ outside lives. “The important story was what happened inside her office. It was what she had to focus on, it was the story, it was what was really happening.” What is Steve and Gretchen’s story outside the office, and how do they each tell it differently in therapy? What is the story unfolding inside the office that Sandy wants them to focus on?

5. When Steve tells Gretchen he is thinking of taking the kids to visit the Snyders on their farm in Mendocino, Gretchen responds with anger. She says Tina Snyder is “an airhead trust-fund baby,” and that their organic farm is “chaotic.” But how does she really feel and why? Are there other instances when Gretchen says the opposite of what she means?

6. How do their extramarital relationships help Gretchen and Steve better understand each other and what they want from their marriage? What does Gretchen initially see in Bill that reminds her of what attracted her to Steve? What does Gretchen learn from being with Bill that helps her understand what she needs from Steve?

7. The story is set almost entirely in Sandy’s office, with each chapter comprising a therapy session. In which sessions do Steve and Gretchen have breakthroughs? In which do they seem to be stuck or moving backward? For example, does the session that happens right after Gretchen’s trip to New York seem like progress?

8. What kind of person is Gretchen, according to Steve? According to Sandy? How does Gretchen see herself? What are the rules she has made for herself?

9. What happens in the sessions that Sandy has alone with Steve and with Gretchen? What do they learn? How does Sandy use these sessions to inform her work with them when they meet together?

10. What do we know of Sandy’s personal life? Is she married? Does her relationship with Heidi, her mother, influence her approach to Steve and Gretchen’s therapy? Why are we given so much detail about what has happened between Sandy and Heidi?

11. Chapter 15 begins: “The next session, they were all over each other, as if they hadn’t made any progress the session before. Sandy wasn’t surprised.” What progress did Gretchen and Steve make in the previous session? Why isn’t Sandy surprised that the next session is both especially difficult and especially critical? What has happened by the end of the chapter?

12. Whom are you rooting for as the book progresses—Gretchen, Steve, or the marriage? Do Gretchen and Steve change or grow in ways that cause your sympathies to shift? Are Gretchen and Steve likable as individuals? As a couple? Do you think they belong together? Are they people you would like to know?

13. After Valentine’s Day, Gretchen meets with Sandy alone. What has happened in the meantime to alter her feelings about both Bill and Steve? What is she beginning to understand about the differences between the two men as well as the differences between romantic love and marriage?

14. In the last chapter the couple is reunited. Why does Gretchen allow Steve to move in with her? What has changed about each of them that will give them a chance to have a better marriage? What do they commit to going forward?

15. It could be said that the book has four main characters: Sandy, Gretchen, Steve, and the marriage, represented by Sandy’s green chair. Steve and Gretchen’s task is to learn to listen to their marriage. When they are finally able to do that, they are able to reconcile. What is it that the marriage has to say to them?

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Listen to the Marriage 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Entertaining and insightful story of a broken marriage and working through it with a marriage counselor
PattySmith87 More than 1 year ago
Many thanks to Netgalley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and John Jay Osborn for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. My opinions are 100& my own and independent of receiving an advanced copy. How much power, emotion, honesty, and truth can be packed into 256 pages? Quite a bit, if you are talking about “Listen To The Marriage”. What an incredible experience it was to be a fly on the wall, while Gretchen and Steve pore their hearts out to Sandy, their marriage councillor. I was completely caught up in their struggle, reading it all in one afternoon. I had been having a hard time, of late, trying to find a book to latch onto. Flitting from horror to magic to mystery, but nope, it was this little tiny gem about betrayal, growth and change that grabbed me. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. Gretchen and Steve are broken. So much so, that they are afraid they are headed for divorce. They find themselves in the office of Sandy, an unconventional marriage therapist. Can they pick up the pieces and put themselves together again? When they do, who will they be? Will they stay together or forge life ahead, apart? Told mostly through the therapist’s voice, we get a rare glimpse into what a marriage looks like, how what starts with love and hopes and dreams can get derailed into something so unrecognizable that you are driving straight into an abyss. Sandy is wise, patient and surprisingly non-judgemental for someone who can clearly see into these people’s motives. Both Gretchen and Steve have to do the work of breaking down walls and opening up about their feelings, in order to see what, if anything, is left between them. If you have ever sat in a therapist’s office, a lot of this will ring true. For example, Sandy always remains impartial, but damned if Gretchen doesn’t accuse her of secretly being on Steve’s side. Very typical, especially if your therapist is not always agreeing with you and maybe challenging you to grow. If you are married, or have been married for a while, you will find something to relate to in Gretchen and Steve’s marriage. It takes you through all the mess that marriage can be. How you start out on a team and after some time goes by, without quite knowing how, you end up pitted against each other, just trying to keep your head above water and stop from losing yourself altogether. If you are lucky, you have healthy ways to communicate and respect each other’s boundaries. Sometimes, there is betrayal. Steve has an affair and Gretchen has to find a way to forgive him, regardless if they get back together. Once children are part of the picture, you are forever tied to one another. I am still married. I related so much to this novel, it was a bit of a sob-fest for me. I completely understood Gretchen’s rage at how unfair it was that now that Steve had changed and became this self-aware, great father, someone else was going to get the benefit of all her hard work. I also recognized the pattern of speak that a couple can sometimes get into. You have the same conversation, over and over again, it almost writes itself. It is hard to break out of that without the help of someone from the outside. I thought the choice Osborn made to have the voice of the therapist narrate the novel brilliant, because how else can the reader stay impartial. It was a bit unrealistic how omnipotent she was with her clients. I doubt therapists are so in tune with their patients. If they were, no one would divorce. I recognized the desire to b